I find Britney Spears endlessly fascinating. Not musically, of course – I rarely listen to her these days – but for what she represents in modern pop (and attitudes towards it). When she was added to the panel of American X Factor I wrote about what a perfect fit it was, both pushing a “dead-eyed idea of pop as something which, at its best, sells.” On Britney herself, I wrote that:
Britney as a brand & persona long ago eclipsed Britney as a person. It’s almost irrelevant to ponder Britney as an artist because she is the ultimate blank canvas, reflecting everything and nothing, at once devoid of personality and containing everyone’s personalities. She may still put out albums but really, at this stage, no-one would bat an eyelid if she was used to advertise hedge funds.
Now this doesn’t mean that Britney can’t be involved in great pop. The brilliance of Blackout was (and remains) that it got the point (or more apropos, the lack of one) of Britney:
In that regard Blackout is also a concept album – one about modern fame and modern pop music. Its power rests almost entirely on the persona of ‘Britney Spears’, not the person. The associations of that persona feed into the music and lend it an uncomfortable power – we know that as a person she is damaged and unhappy, yet as a popstar she is all-consuming. This subverts a dominant notion in modern pop – namely that the context is irrelevant and all that matters is whether a song is any good or not. We are under no illusion that Britney Spears had anything to do with most of this record – but the album confronts that head on and makes it into a dazzling virtue. As with Erotica, there is nothing seductive about Blackout – instead its pleasures lie in the confounding of expectations and the contorting of Britney’s image. “You think Britney and her music are manufactured? Fuck you. How about this?”
Post-Blackout, of course, there’s been a long attempt at normalising Britney’s image once more. X Factor was the apex of this, sending Britney into people’s homes every week in an acknowledgement that personality (the appearance of being ‘approachable’ and ‘down to earth’) is what really matters in modern pop. In truth, she didn’t come across as any less dead-eyed and lost. The crucial thing, however, is that she wasn’t unavoidably absurd. She remained inoffensive and blank – as such, people could keep on projecting whatever they wanted onto her. In a sense it’s the same projection which David Bowie used to such great effect on The Next Day, albeit inverted. Bowie had fun with it, documenting in a very real sense his ‘fall’ from mythical vacuum to a real, functioning artist again. He stamped his authority onto the void which he had become in the same way that Blackout did for Britney. Since then, however, Britney and everyone around her (you really don’t get the sense she cares much about any of this) have done their best to avoid it and pretend it’s business as usual (with the odd crack in the facade). So we had Femme Fatale, an album which sounded thoroughly modern and overwhelmingly anodyne – whatever the quality of the songs, they could have been anyone for the most part. By this stage, however, that’s more than enough. No-one expects much of Britney other than to leave them be to project whatever they like onto her. In this process rather generic material is elevated as it acts as a reservoir for the listeners, who feel that in Britney’s blankness they recognise the ultimate ‘pop personality’. How could they not think this – they’re really only recognising themselves.
‘Work Bitch’ is business as usual. It really is Scream and Shout part 2, from the generic EDM beats to the faux-British accent and it could easily be one of those one-hit wonder dance tracks which feature anonymous women both singing and being objectified to comedic levels in the video. It’s one stamp of personality comes from its appropriation of the language of (black) drag culture, reflecting the same appropriation by Western white gay men who exchange lines from Ru Paul’s Drag Race in facile approximation of an ‘edgier’ identity. For her part, Britney keeps out of the way: as with S&S there is literally nothing about the song which is unique to her aside from the appeal to her mythology (S&S very deliberately so, with the ‘Britney bitch!’ line) which these days is synonymous with her blankness. Here, we’re long past any notion of pop as something which can be sublime and cathartic; instead it’s something functional which makes no demands and serves primarily to validate the listener. Perhaps in that frame of reference this is a brilliant Britney Spears single. Unfortunately, a brilliant Britney Spears single in 2013 is one which displays little more than contempt for pop music as an art form which can contain its own character and integrity, rather than subsuming itself in the listener’s ego.